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More on Compassion and Assertiveness

December 2018

Excerpts from Sherrie M Vavrichek's Guide to Compassionate Assertiveness: How to Express Your Needs & Deal with Conflict While Keeping a Kind Heart (2012)

This approach draws on East and West: Buddhism, mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy.

Healthy relationships
"Compassionate assertiveness recognises that infinite accommodation of others is not always possible or even a good thing, for you or for others. There are times when in the best interests of all it is important to leave a situation, speak up, negotiate, set limits, or take action. The trick is to do it in a skilful and patient manner and be conscious of our intentions." (p. 69)

A lack of assertive communication can be damaging: "nonassertive people who do things against their will, hold back from taking care of themselves, or allow themselves or others to be mistreated cannot really be happy, peaceful individuals. In fact, rather than always being placid saints, they may at times use unhealthy means to get their way or show their disapproval through passive resistance or by developing a sour or avoidant demeanour. Nonassertiveness can have serious emotional consequences as well, including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem." (p. 35)

Mindfulness can increase our ability to combine compassion with assertiveness, bringing new depth to all our relationships. Developing our skills of concentration, relaxation and awareness helps us to "access the compassion, wisdom, and equanimity [we] already possess." (p. 115)

Basic principles of compassionate assertiveness
- "Actions are the results of complex causes and conditions."
- "Actions have consequences."
- "Intentions matter."
- "Follow the middle way." (p. 33)

Tools for compassionate assertiveness
a) Gratitude and generosity: "when you express appreciation for the other person's positive qualities and contributions to your life, then on occasions when you thoughtfully bring up concerns the other person is more likely to [listen receptively and] make an effort to seek a mutually agreeable solution." (p. 46)

"By being generous, you are also laying the foundation for healthy assertiveness, because you are communicating a positive, caring, and respectful attitude toward others. Then, when the inevitable time comes that you need to assert yourself or set limits with people in your life, you can do so with the awareness that we all deserve to be corrected in a benevolent way, when we make a mistake." (p. 55)

b) Equanimity: "the ability to step back emotionally from a given situation and examine all aspects of it in a balanced, dispassionate, clear, and calm manner." (p. 60). In other words, being aware of the big picture.

Cultivating equanimity and patience "can help you be assertive in a respectful and caring way. This doesn't have to mean dropping everything in order to please someone, but neither does it involve reacting in a defensive or aggressive way. […] Coming from a place of equanimity and compassion, [you can] be assertive but also caring and supportive." (p. 65)

c) Courage: "compassionate assertiveness involves finding the courage to respond to anger and fear in constructive ways". (p. 71)

"In stressful interpersonal situations, instead of ignoring, holding on to, or running away from your angry or fearful reactions, it can be valuable to consider that they may be signposts that need to be investigated." (p. 80)

"You can begin by trying to examine your emotions, bodily sensations, and thoughts in a calm manner." (p. 82)

d) Forgiveness: this “includes the ability to let go of hatred or wishes for revenge. At its highest level, forgiveness includes a willingness to consider that many causes and conditions, including pain or ignorance, can lead people to do bad things.” (p. 87)

"Forgiveness is not glossing over wrongdoings, denying the seriousness of an offence, or pretending that things are different from the way they really are. Forgiveness is not excusing or condoning wrongdoing and does not remove appropriate consequences. [It] does not mean you have to trust the person [and nor does it] have to involve reconciliation. Forgiveness is not denial or forgetting." (pp. 87-88)

How to communicate using compassionate assertiveness, step by step
1. Start a conversation: stick to the facts, make an observation, share an impression or ask a question.
2. Encourage dialogue by asking the other person for their perspective.
3. Express your feelings in a clear, calm and caring way.
4. "Use playful humour when possible. Avoid veiled hostility, and don't take yourself too seriously."
5. Express your needs in a way that shows you're taking responsibility for them and not attacking the other person.
6. Make a reasonable request and share ideas with the other person to find a win-win solution.
7. "Express appreciation. You will increase goodwill if you end the conversation graciously." (pp. 129-130)

How to negotiate using compassionate assertiveness, step by step
1. "Lay your foundation of gratitude and patience on a day-to-day basis."
2. "Draw upon your communication skills throughout the process."
3. "Seek to understand the other person's point of view."
4. Aim to solve the problem, not attack the other person.
5. Express your feelings and needs calmly.
6. As you negotiate, think about the other person's needs as well as your own.
7. Rather than trying to force a solution, allow time for everyone to think things over.
8. "If you don't get what you want, try to take it in stride. Focus on the big picture, including positives, and try to cultivate patience for yourself and the other person."
9. "If over time negotiation after negotiation fails, consider making a change in your life." (p. 145)

Compassionate assertiveness is a huge topic and this summary just scratches the surface. The Guide to Compassionate Assertiveness contains many helpful stories showing how the theory works in a range of practical situations.